Nature, nation, race

From Catherine Holland’s The Body Politic: Foundings, Citizenship, and Difference in the American Political Imagination:

Nature is central to Jefferson’s writings. It pervades his private and official correspondence as well as his more public and collectively authored works like the Declaration. It is in Notes on the State of Virginia, however, that he most clearly articulates his philosophy of nature as a political philosophy of American nationalism. Jefferson does not simply marshall nature as a preexisting setting upon which an American nation is to be constructed, but rather produces nature anew by representing it as a necessary precursor to national history, a naturalized past that makes an American nation appear to be its logical, chronological, and inevitable outcome. For Jefferson, nature is more than the given properties of a landscape; more than the state of indigenous plant, animal, and human life in the New World; and more than an immanent order of being. Nature is a means by which America may be made intelligible as a nation, and natural history a technique by which Jefferson recasts people(s), places, and topographic feature into a single entity, continuous in both time and space. Nature is the retrospective logic by which he integrates diverse objects and people into a coherent and wholly new national form.

Historically, the establishment of permanent colonies in America is not only coincident with modernity, but as Benedict Anderson has pointed out, the New World was also the location where new forms of national consciousness first emerged. Our ability “to ‘think’ the nation,” as Anderson puts it, hinges at least in part on a distinctively modern reorganization of temporal modes of understanding. Where premodern thought is characterized by a strange simultaneity of archaic and contemporary elements that fuse “past and future in an instantaneous present,” what Walter Benjamin refers to as messianic time, Anderson suggests that modernity brings with it a new understanding of time as organized serially in an “endless chain of cause and effect or of radical separations between past and present.” Notes on the State of Virginia can be read in this light, as Jefferson’s attempt to think the nation, to transform a premodern messianic landscape into an ordered and orderly, progressive national state.

What is significant about Jefferson’s mobilization of nature in Notes and elsewhere is not only his ability to present us with a nature that is historical, but one that operates to establish territorial antiquity in the name of modern, national America. In doing so, Jefferson forges a fiction of kinship between the aboriginal inhabitants of the continent and its more recent settlers, a fiction that undergirds Americans’ ability to imagine themselves bound together, as John Jay would later put it, as “one connected country…one united people.” Natural history, then, is the technique by which Jefferson establishes territorial antiquity in the name of a modern national state, but it is also a means by which he establishes genealogical antiquity in the service of what Shklar calls “the living citizenry of a democracy.”

This genealogical nationalism is, perhaps, Jefferson’s most troubling legacy. In Notes, the essential link between America’s natural past and its democratic future is forged through a historicized conception of the citizen’s body, where the raced body becomes the foundation of citizenship itself. For Jefferson, the correspondence between creole (persons of European descent born in the Americas) and Native American bodies provides continuity between an ancient American past and the national future, while also ensuring the eventual transubstantiation of Indian into citizen. At the same time, this genealogical nationalism confirms the inadmissibility of African Americans to national citizenship, for the black body cannot be assimilated to the American past and therefore, for Jefferson, has no place in the national future.


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